Rethinking ‘carpe diem’

Opinion by Ethan Chua
Feb. 13, 2017, 1:20 a.m.

Before I came to Stanford, I grew up in the Philippines, where I was raised Christian and attended a Catholic Chinese-Filipino high school. My upbringing and values were conservative — my parents would balk at the idea of their children in romantic relationships, and things like partying and drinking weren’t generally Jesuit-approved. So when I first got on campus, the feeling of freedom that came with the vast change in culture was exhilarating. Here, I thought, I could drink, party and do all sorts of things that I’d never been allowed to do at home; here, I could be exciting.

During fall quarter, I started filling my schedule with activities and events, marking down each first in my planner – first frat party, first on-campus musical, first crush, first time getting drunk, first time singing in the rain. I did my best to say yes to everything, even things I wasn’t comfortable with; I told myself that part of the college experience was deliberately going out of my comfort zone. Mantras like “carpe diem” – seize the day – and its improv cousin, “Yes and,” filled my head. I wanted each day to be exciting, fulfilling, exhilarating, heart-pumping, new. But by winter quarter, I was exhausted.

I realized, first of all, that the freedom that college provided didn’t translate to a new self. Even though I was suddenly presented with opportunities that I’d never had before, I still started out the same person I was before I left the Philippines, with a belief system and culture shaped by my school, my parents, my background and my individual introspection. When the values I’d spent 18 years cultivating clashed with new things I wanted to try, I felt deeply uncomfortable. If I didn’t enjoy frat parties or hook-up culture, did that make me unexciting? Did it mean my cultural context was tying me down, leaving me unable to enjoy the supposed fullness of life?

And, when I did try out new things, I often found myself feeling empty. Part of me was hoping that exciting and impulsive actions, like biking to Palo Alto at 4 a.m. for a Subway sandwich, or going fountain hopping in the middle of winter quarter, would somehow transform me. Instead, though I’d have a great story to tell, I’d also be frustrated at going to bed the same person I was the day before. Through my newfound freedom, I was searching for something transformative – something that would make me the kind of person who could say “carpe diem and mean it unironically – but never quite found it.

The thing about slogans like “carpe diem and “Yes and,” is that, while they’re nice on paper, they’re unsustainable in practice. For example, self-care often involves saying no to things that seem exciting on paper, but that we actually aren’t comfortable with, and making that choice can be unglamorous. No one wants to be known as the kind of person who’d rather do a problem set instead of going out to a party, but the commitment we make to our values, our priorities and our goals is a lot more important than being exciting.

And it turns out that what’s exciting and what’s fulfilling are two vastly different things. Putting in the effort to be really great at something you’re passionate about is going to entail slogging through a lot of boring stuff. Writing involves messy first drafts and hours spent grappling at the right word to use in a sentence; computer science involves buggy code and poring over pages and pages of textbooks. Working on a friendship isn’t always going to be exciting, either; sometimes, it means hugging through tears, or lying in a dorm room trading homework, or sipping coffee and talking through each other’s days. The everyday stuff is often what matters most, even if it doesn’t check anything off our bucket lists or make a particularly compelling Snapchat story.

Which is not to say there isn’t any value to seizing the day – sometimes, doing something risky, crazy or outside your comfort zone is exactly what you need to kickstart a dry morning or post-midterm slump. Sometimes, you discover a new part of yourself, make a friend or get a kick-ass nose ring. But, more often than not, what’s important is less a matter of seizing the days and more a matter of working through them, one step at a time.


Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected]

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